CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers' running game was running on all cylinders, and their pass defense was passing the test posed by the Atlanta Falcons.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, that was the story for less than half of Sunday's game – not over the course of the entire game.
The Panthers fell into a 17-0 hole at halftime, and though they threatened to dig out with a resurgent running game and promising pass rush, the hole proved much too deep in a 31-10 loss at Bank of America Stadium.
"It's embarrassing to come out and start the way we did," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "It's not insurmountable, but we definitely had a little bit of a gut-check at halftime.
"I thought we played better in the second half, but if we had played that way the whole game, we would have given ourselves a chance."
That's been a theme for the Panthers (1-12) of late. Just last week at Seattle, they played perhaps their best half of football all season to lead 14-3 at halftime, but it was just the opposite in the second half of a 31-14 loss.
Sunday, the Panthers gave up two quick touchdowns but steadied themselves defensively in the second quarter and cranked up the running game in the third.
A 48-yard run from Jonathan Stewart on the Panthers' third offensive play of the second half more than doubled Carolina's yardage total and set the table for Mike Goodson to rip off a 13-yard touchdown run.
Stewart, who finished with 133 yards on 18 carries, then took off on a 42-yard run the next time the Panthers had the ball, moving them into position to turn what had been a lopsided game into one-possession game.
But on fourth-and-4 from Atlanta's 38-yard line, quarterback Jimmy Clausen – who struggled all day – got sacked at midfield, and the Falcons (11-2) steamed down the field and scored on running back Michael Turner's second of three touchdown runs to lead 24-7.
Carolina's offense and defense had its moments the rest of the way, with Stewart and Goodson (70 yards) helping the Panthers rack up a season-high 212 rushing yards and the defense producing three sacks.
It was, however, a textbook case of too little, too late.
"Defensively, we had a pick and we had some sacks. Offensively, I thought we rushed the ball very efficiently," head coach John Fox said. "There are some areas where we're growing and getting better – just not to the point where it's getting us the results that we want."
Fox has a simple theory for why the Panthers are having difficulty being consistently good.
"In our current state, it's hard," Fox said. "That's not an excuse – guys are working their butts off – but we're just a little short right now. That's the reality."
What looked to be an uphill battle on paper got steeper still on the game's first snap, when Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson stripped Stewart, giving Atlanta the ball just 29 yards from the end zone. A 16-yard run by Turner, who finished with 112 yards on 28 carries, set up quarterback Matt Ryan to go to play-action and find tight end Tony Gonzalez for a 4-yard score just 1:25 into the game.
The Panthers went three-and-out on their ensuing possession, including a pass completion for zero yards by Armanti Edwards in his first and only snap since Week 5.
Atlanta struck quickly again. Ryan hit Harry Douglas – who ran past cornerback Robert McClain -- for a 46-yard gain down the left sideline, and Turner scored from 1 yard out after a spirited attempt at a goal-line stand fizzled thanks to an offsides penalty.
Panthers linebacker and team captain Jon Beason, who tied for the team lead with eight tackles, tried to absorb the brunt of the blame for the slow start.
"As a leader on this team, I put a lot on my shoulders. … I was bad in the first half," Beason said. "If we're going to be able to compete around here and be consistent, I've got to play better."
Just about everyone in Panther blue did play better from there, but it wasn't nearly enough.
The Panthers netted just 76 passing yards as Carolina lost for just the second time in franchise history when rushing for more than 200 yards.
"There are times that we look pretty good and times that we look pretty terrible. We're showing both pretty much every week," Gross said. "It was just an incomplete game, and that's what has happened 12 times this year."